I had originally intended to write this article a month ago, but, well, life happens. This is the second of a two-part series of what I consider to be the wines that are worthy of crisscrossing the Dry Creek Valley appellation. Last month I discussed Syrah, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. This time, Merlot, Grenache Blanc, Petite Sarah, and yes, Zinfandel.
Going back to Healdsburg reminds me of my first press trip: Dry Creek Valley. A few years ago, on one of my many trips out to visit my in-laws, I was invited to visit Dry Creek by a reader of this blog who happened to be on the board of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley and an avid cyclist.
I wrote quite a bit about that first trip, my first real exposure to the appellation (in all, there were over a dozen posts: Search “Tales from Dry Creek Valley” in the search box), and Dry Creek remains one of my favorite regions to visit. It is tiny in stature (one of the smallest appellations in the country: 16 miles long by 2 miles wide), but grand in reputation and influence with over 150 winegrowers and 60 wineries.
Additionally, it is perhaps the single best area, in the world, that I have experienced to ride a bike. Yes. I understand that is quite a statement, but sitting here, typing these words, I can’t think of a single place where I would rather ride (and remember, I have ridden all over France).
Navigating Dry Creek Valley is conceptually rather simple as there are only two main roads (Dry Creek Road on the east side of the Valley and West Dry Creek Road on the opposite—what the Valley lacks in clever street naming it makes up for in many other ways) that contain five total stop signs. What is immeasurably more difficult is knowing where to go to find some of the best wine in the region.
While Dry Creek is justifiably known for the world-class Zinfandel grown there, many other varieties thrive in the near perfect growing conditions and myriad soil types. What I offer below is my suggestion of how to navigate the Valley, in search of the best (in my opinion) expressions of several different wines, arranged by grape variety.
For some, Merlot remains anathema–forever caught between the more powerful Cabernet and the more ethereal Pinot Noir, but when done right, Merlot can be majestic and alluring. For my money, there is no better Merlot in Dry Creek than Kokomo’s Merlot from Pauline’s Vineyard. The grapes are grown by 4th generation Dry Creek farmer (and Kokomo partner) Randy Peters and made by nearing-rock-star-status winemaker (and Kokomo partner) Erik Miller. Both men are fantastic at what they do and if you happen to catch either one of them in the eclectic and welcoming tasting room, be prepared for a few stories to be thrown your way. If (like me) the desire is to get them off track, mention college basketball with Randy and Purdue University with Erik, then take a seat, you might be there a while….
Others to consider? Well, even though there seems to be quite a bit of Merlot grown in the Valley, most of it is sold off to some of the larger producers of Sonoma wines. That’s too bad. My benefactor, who grows both Merlot and Cabernet, has bottled one barrel of his Merlot both in 2014 and 2015. The wine was made by Erik Miller, and needless to say, it is fantastic. Next time you visit Houston, encourage me to share a bottle. Well, at least you can try….
Like Merlot, there is not a ton of Grenache Blanc bottled in Dry Creek. In fact, other than Lodi and Paso Robles, I am not sure there is much bottled as a varietal wine in the entire state (there are less than 400 acres planted of Grenache Blanc in California), but it is worth the drive to Frick Winery at the Northern end of the Valley. Be sure to arrive on the weekend, as Bill Frick, truly a one-person-show only opens the tasting room on Saturday and Sunday (and Fridays in the Summer).
Others? Good question. If you know of any, please let me know in the comments.
Petite Sirah has a dedicated following–people who love their wines dark, inky, big, and brooding are drawn to this variety that hails from Bordeaux. The wines from Lambert Bridge, while certainly not inexpensive (the Petite Sirah goes for $55), are exceedingly well made and delicious. Be ready with a toothbrush, however, Petite Sirah will stain your teeth like nobody’s business.
Another wine to check out would be Wilson Winery–those that are familiar with Dry Creek, surely know that Ken Wilson can be a polarizing personality. They also know that Diane Wilson’s wines pull no punches: they are big and bold with oodles of fruit–exactly what most people want in a Petite Sirah.
A trip to Dry Creek would not be complete without tasting some of the wine that many consider its “signature variety.” It is not quite that easy, though, since there are many styles of Zinfandel and it helps to know who does what. Perhaps my favorite Zins in the valley are made by Doug Nalle of Nalle Winery. Why? Well, Doug (and now his son Andrew) have a more hands-off approach to winemaking–the vines are dry-farmed and head pruned as Nalle likes to have nature in the driver’s seat. The result is wines that are lower in fruit and in alcohol, but high in character and depth. Lovers of bigger Zins should definitely head toward Barry Collier’s Collier Falls wines which are full-throttled big boys, not afraid of much or anything. In between? I really like Dee and Richard Rued wines from right in the heart of the Valley.
Need more big, fruity, muscular wines? The aforementioned Wilson Winery should be on the top of the list. More reserved? Head up to Pedroncelli and ask for my good buddy Ed. Right down the middle? Once again, look no further than Erik Miller at Kokomo.